The Attitude of Mastery

We all experience problems when we practice. This means we continually find that there are things we “can’t do”. What we do with that experience defines us as players. Part of fulfilling the description of mastery, of eliminating obstructions in our relationship to experience, is to react to this common experience from a position of power, not from a position of weakness.

What does this mean? Well, power means “the ability to change”, so, to react from a position of weakness would be a reaction that is unable to change the situation. It works this way: we find we “can’t do it”, and so, we form a belief, an opinion, about that. We say “I can’t do it”, because that is exactly what is happening, and probably happening over and over!

Our belief includes the assumption that this will continue to be true because somehow we are inherently incapable, inherently flawed, unlike the people we have heard who can “do it”. The experience of not being able to do it right now carries with it the assumption that this is evidence of a permanent condition.

It is important to appreciate that this is an intensely emotional reaction that will call up from within us any potential for feelings of inadequacy lurking within our being. Even if we have achieved great competency in other areas of life, our profession perhaps, we can still find ourselves completely debilitated by being placed in this vulnerable position of experiencing our own inadequacy.

A person in their power will not create a belief from the experience of inadequacy. He or she will instead remain situated in the original position which brought them to the guitar and to that piece of music – their love and desire for the music. That will continue to propel them forward in their efforts, and will inspire them with feelings of interest, enthusiasm, and curiosity. These feelings will guide their efforts, unerringly, to eventual success. These feelings, in themselves impose no pressure or time limit, and no condemnation which could provide the doorway to negativity, surrender, and defeat.

Warning! Attitude, though essential, is not enough! It must be understood that if you have no knowledge of how to practice correctly, in a way that actually does develop real playing ability in the fingers, and also provides the understandings and methods for continuous training of the fingers to meet the challenges presented by new music, you have no choice but to spiral downward in depression in the face of seemingly unmovable obstacles.

Attitude alone will not help you here, if you lack knowledge. However, the right attitude will empower you to seek, to find, and to obtain the resources that exist for obtaining that knowledge. If I had not done this throughout my life, I would have gotten nowhere.

Remember, if you want professional results, you must have a professional attitude.

Before you finally accept some limiting belief about your potential on the guitar, ask yourself whether you are operating from a position of weakness, or mastery. Examine your feelings, your behavior, and your results, and you will know the answer. And remember, the only time you truly fail is when you quit.

No Dead Ends

This process of endless experimentation brings us down many, many roads as the months go by. Many of those roads are seen to not lead us where we want to go, and so we abandon them. However, one of the most interesting lessons to be learned from engaging in this process of endless experimentation, observation, and deduction, is that we realize there are no dead ends, every one of those experiments yielded some kind of useful insight. Even though that road did not take me where I wanted to go, I saw something very valuable there, something I would not have seen on any other road, and I find that I use what I learned on that road later on, usually combined with insights from other avenues.

The approach that I find to be ultimately successful is usually made up of bits and pieces of insight learned from my travel down many abandoned roads. When we are paying attention, and when we are situated in the position of mastery, nothing is ever wasted. In life, half truths often function as lies. In guitar, the imperfect solutions we find often contain a bit of the final truth we seek, so we hold on to these half truths, and combine them as we go. They will add up to the complete solution we seek.

In order to do this, we must deliberately return to previous strategies that were judged inadequate to solve a playing problem, and try it again, seeing if we can modify it by applying a component of another strategy. We often find that a slight change in a strategy previously rejected changes that strategy into a more effective approach worth keeping. In my practice of “La Catedral”, I did this innumerable times, honing and refining passages over and over, with some passages requiring 20, 30, 40, or more applications of this process.

Sometimes I seriously think that I have to discover every wrong way of doing something before I discover the right way!

The Inner Animal

I have been talking about a robust use of the intellect for the discovery of solutions to problems, and it is in fact an essential tool that must be developed and used. However, there is more to the story. There is another form of awareness that is equally essential, and is often our only guide through a difficult and unyielding situation. I call this guide the “inner animal”. Scientifically, it referred to as “physical intelligence”.

One of our Principled Teachers, Jon Aronson in Iceland, once made a remark in our forum that the most helpful essay he ever read of mine was “Discover Your Discomfort”, one of the first I wrote to give students a clue as to what real growth on the guitar was about. Since I read his very perceptive remark, I have come to realize that in fact the insights contained in that essay are what I use probably more than anything else in my practice, and they are of a most fundamental nature, seeming to underlie everything else.

In that essay, I am counseling the importance of a powerful and constant attention to the real state of the body during playing, and the development of a profound awareness of the kinesthetic sensations during playing. This awareness has no conceptual or thinking aspect to it, it is pure feeling. In simple terms, students have no idea whatsoever of how dreadfully uncomfortable and tension filled they are when they play. Most students are not paying attention to it at all. They are equally ignorant of the fact that there is NO entry into the ranks of professional or even competent guitar players without this. It is mandatory, and all good and great players have it. It is what gives good players that look of ease they have when they play, and the music that smooth, satisfying sound.

When we connect with our “inner animal” we experience a simple and direct awareness, one that is often completely foreign to average people living in the modern world, which means living in our head instead of our body. Don’t forget, the body, which is what we use to play the guitar, IS an animal, as much as any dog or cat, and the evolved human brain HAS created a separation in our awareness of our true and complete nature.

I will very often resort to this direct awareness of the state of comfort of my body (from the fingers on back) during practice. Of primary importance is a complete sensitivity to feelings of discomfort while playing. I am constantly paying attention to the feeling of my body during playing to catch every instance of discomfort. Every feeing of discomfort is then examined, traced to the notes and the movements that are causing it. Then, all knowledge of guitar technique and correct practice is brought to bear to “de-stress” that passage, and produce the notes minus the discomfort.

If It Ain’t Broke, Break It!

Even on things I do well, I will still ask “what other possibilities are there, what other finger, angle, pressure, etc, might be used. How can I make this even easier to play? What do my hands and fingers seem to want to do. Are they really happy here?”

I am very often astonished by the results, and sometimes the wisdom of the fingers runs counter to all previously accepted notions of “the way things work”, and are the impetus for new, long range investigations. A great number of important things about playing the guitar, things which have turned into my teaching methods and found to be useful to others, came into being because of some practice moment wherein I brought myself to this level of awareness, and paid attention to the inner animal. This is all part of “finding our way to the notes”.

There is another reason for constantly seeking to refine our playing ability. It is simply this: the more optimized the movement process of playing, the less active effort used, and the easier something is to play, the more your innate musicality can shine through and as the music. Physical difficulties are barriers to musical expression.

Study the Maps

As you can see, the entire emphasis of what I have written here is on an interior, “do it yourself” kind of approach. And it is very necessary for everyone to be pro-active in their practice, to function as their own teacher on a day to day basis. However, do not let that lead you into a wrong and harmful understanding. You do NOT have to discover everything by yourself. Much has been written by great players and great teachers that will place you far ahead on the road to great playing ability. It is just that to really make use of it, to have it make a real difference in your playing, you will still have to exert a great effort to understand it all, and make it a physical reality for you through daily practice.

In my work, it has been especially important for me to become proficient in self directed learning, because I found there were no existing maps for where I wished to go. It was only years later that I learned to play all the music I was taught throughout my years of lessons. At that time I was simply given the music, and general instructions such as “hold the hand like this, use rest stroke, free stroke – practice hard and good luck!” I was to find that to play such music well, requires a whole lot more information so that we practice smart before we practice hard, and it requires a whole lot more than luck!

There are no existing materials for learning to play advanced music like “La Catedral” at a professional level. Anyone who can, has figured it out for themselves. However, I will, in the future, create such a map for anyone who wants to travel there, because I have carefully chronicled the journey.

The average person has aspirations that are much more modest, they simply want to play and sing their favorite songs, or favorite guitar solos. But even here, as a teacher, I found that there was no existing method that guaranteed success for everyone, no existing method that had analyzed the problems that beset many beginners, and provided solutions. Just like reaching the highest levels of classical playing, it seemed that no one quite understood why some people “got it”, and others “got out”.

“The Principles”, and “The Path” are those maps for the beginning guitarist, as well as for the experienced player wishing to get even better. When actually used (not just read), they guarantee success.

So I encourage everyone to study the maps that are out there, those created by others and those created by me, and follow them. Remember however, all I have said here, be ready, every step of the way, to step out in a new direction that perhaps no one has followed before.

To learn more about “The Principles”:

To learn more about “The Path”:

Copyright 2007 Jamie Andreas. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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